Bahá'í Epistolary

Sunday, 27 May 2007

Failure, Grace and Self-Disclosure

The following is a moment in one of my most unforgettable and spiritual experiences of correspondence, with an unbalkingly sincere, and powerfully intelligent, veteran soul that I am grateful and privileged to be able to call my friend. It was a burst of spiritual encounter that lasted a few days only, and turned words into rivers of fire, and left its traces for eternity. Every few years we get to exchange pleasantries, converse a little, and not much more. And yet that moment of conversation, for me at least, simply IS, and remains.

I remember reading Ruhiyyih Khanum's obituary of Enoch Olinga (she inherited her compelling gift for obituaries from her mother), where she recalls a metaphor of which Enoch Olinga was fond. It likens man to a guitar, that wishes to be tuned by God to be strummed by His hand. God explains the guitar lacks the capacity to serve as His instrument. The guitar begs nonetheless for the boon. So God tunes one string up and up until it snaps. The guitar, undeterred, beseeches Him to try anew. And yet another string strains and breaks. And another. And another. And another. Until the very last string snaps.

That's it? That's it. The metaphor at first repelled me as a statement of hopelessness. It now sings to me as capturing my striving for perfection. "The ability to contain the maximum paradox is the definition of true heroism". How true. You mentioned the shattering paradox of the Manifestation of God in the body and soul of a human. That is the extreme paradox of the Arc of Descent. Is not the supreme paradox of the Arc of Ascent our infinite thirst and finite capacity? Our systematic pursuit of misunderstanding and subsequent panicked flight from spiritual law; our desperate climb of irrational walls built out of immense amounts folly; and the final, mortal leap to self destruction leading to the disconcertingly serendipitous resurrection of reunion, so tentative, so fragile? Why do we strive with all our might after mis-conceived or mis-shapen goals, only to find our heart's desire lightly tapping our shoulder from behind us, not merely disconnected from our deserving, but even from our trajectory? To seek His face in these conditions is surely a mad heroic paradox that makes the unpredicted coins of the spirit spin.

So our strings collapse. Each and all. The sins of the righteous are the good deeds of the near ones. Then what's the point? The point is that invisible line of yearning, of regret, and aspiration, that continues to rise when the line of actuality crumbles in a heap. The line of our innocent dream, our unguarded hope, that precedes and heroically survives the savage wound, frequently buried in bandages.

"Is it possible to tell the tale of one's self in such terms without a kind of spiritual vivisection taking place?"

Yes! It must be. That is what Yourcenar's Ana Soror is all about. But that, after all, is fiction. And yet, there is a rare and infinitesimal space, I think, in which such matters may be told beside fiction. The space occupied, not by the confessor and not the therapist, but by the friend. There is no merit in sharing shame, but something is created, restored, in the exchange of fragments of broken hearts in a state of supplication. It is in the dust of our collapse that we find the meekness to pray. It is in the wounds of irrevocable errors that we find the tears to love. It is in our consciousness of indelible failure that the awareness of the infinite potency of His grace, and might and compassion dawns. It is, finally, in the precipice of impotent despair that the awsome impact of His name, the Unconstrained, the Self-subsisting, destroys our self-sufficiency and gives birth to the seed of tavakul, of reliance upon God. Alí Nakhjavani sealed this budding realisation in my heart in just five minutes that I once shared with him, in the course of a concentrated, abrupt transmission of longing as he returned from crying out his prayers at the Guardian's sacred resting place.

Do we dare trust that the space exists in the madness of our conversation? Dare we expose the points of collapse that make the line of ascent an invisible one? It is a reckless adventure, but one which dangerously yet tentatively calls to me in our encounter. Can we learn something from meeting one another in the defended spot whence our suplication rises? Can we reach out with our hands into one another's heart and draw them out white? Or is this a song best apprehended in silence, by indirection, turning to what in 17th century literature became known as 'conceits'?

I only know that the little of "the rest" which you shared with me evoked dimly yet irreducibly the bridges of fire which in an earlier letter I intuited you had crossed. No one speaks with your voice without having been broken first. I myself fear unwisdom, yet feel inclined, with trepidation, to explore with you moments of krasis, where hope and despair mingle with guts and tears and flesh and joy and are transmuted into landmarks, bridges or lifelines from which we climb out of the mesh of self-absorption toward the arms of the Slayer of lovers.

Something more than our personal encounter impels me in this direction. It is the consciousness that as a community we do not know how to embrace our shadows. We remain scared, and therefore lonely. We must tap the wellsprings of spirituality that vitalise the finer, subtler language of compassion. We should open our eyes to the purity and ardour, the intransigent heroism that keeps us striving for perfection in the sea of our own folly. For this is the true tie that binds us a believers, did we but know. Not our meetings, not our services, not even our interactions - but our undefeated yearnings, even when the things we touch with trembling fingers turn to dust and it's our fault, and we cut the tree of our hope with our own hands - yet still yearn, still wish our touch had been more delicate, our aim more true, our obfuscation less. The invisible line remains unbroken even when hidden to our own eyes. The bond of undiminished yearning in the face of infinite frailty, the inescapable attraction of His face even when our eyes are shut against the storm - that is what binds the people of Bahá in the beginning that has no beginning and in the end that has no end.

I speak to you in the fire.


Pieter B. Ruiter said...

Thundering mountains beyond, the air filled with
half non-existing birds of myth. Scarcely discernable
paths of light slant through bloodshot illusions.

Distortions collapse and dissolve,
and, transcending anguish and tears,
fingers clench at pillars of light,
while ears are diffused in silence.

Uprooted souls long for a sun ascending,
from rumbling unrest, a thousand cries
swell into chorus.

Upon revelation and disclosure,
winds of truth and brightly lit columns
guide the way from imagined citadels of steel
towards brilliant stars eternal.

Fading imageries of shadow make way for purple-glowing
panorama's and valleys of truth and knowledge.
A myriad mysteries salute us in astonishing reality.


Beloved Pieter,

Thank you from my heart for your resonant poem, which indeed transmits the pain and the hope that animates my own meditation. It is in such spaces that hearts discover that the barriers of time, space and body remain far from the reaches of the spirit. In the moment of your poem, we remain, even now, in the very same spot.

With love,


Linda said...

Thank you again for another essay that speaks the truth in such full words. These topics are so important and so unspoken of. Thank u from the bottom of my heart. What a pearl of a blog I found just now!